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“To such as these…”

August 5, 2010

Here’s a moving story of a mom named Heather Moffitt figuring out how to do church with a child that has a developmental disorder.

Having worked as a children’s minister at a congregation with a few children on the autism spectrum–as well as children who simply didn’t fit the model expectations of many adults–I admire how well her church welcomed her and her son. It seems to me that if we are to take Jesus seriously when he says in Matthew (among other Gospel passages), “let the little children come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” well, then, maybe we should be okay with some fussing and playing and crawling and other random noises and actions by children in our pews.

Here’s an excerpt from Ms. Moffitt’s piece:

My expectation of compliments for my well-behaved children was a fantasy; my illusion of parental control over his behavior was as broken as my upper lip.

Some well-meaning members of our congregation gave us advice — much of it contradictory. The problem was that he was with me too much! The problem was that I didn’t spend enough time with him! He was disciplined too much! He wasn’t disciplined enough! But overall, people were kind. We do not attend a church where ushers ask noisy children to leave the sanctuary. We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break.

I slowly realized that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it is not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. And I realized that, as much as I wanted my son’s spiritual formation to happen in the church, I had wanted even more to be acknowledged as a good mother based on his model behavior. A challenging child in church forces everyone — parents and other parishioners — to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.

Navigating church with a challenging child isn’t easy, and I understand why many families who desire to be part of a community of faith decide they can no longer deal with the raised eyebrows, the cramped physical space or the implicit comparisons with all the seemingly normal children. Sometimes the place that should most understand brokenness, at least theologically, is the least equipped to deal with a child with ADHD or autism.

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